It was good and bad now that the whole town knew Grace was harboring two rogues at the Dearest Inn. Either way, things has changed. The positive was now I could explore the rest of the Inn. I could stroll through the dining room and soak up its rustic charm, the crackling fire places, exposed brick and vaulted ceilings. The windows in the lounge were huge, looking out towards the mountains and the orchard. It was a good spot for an Inn, I had to admit.
The negative of everyone knowing who we were and where we were living was that anyone could come and stare at us. Drew and I had suddenly become the two most interesting people in the world. We were gossip fuel for the entire town, burning the place down like a violent wild fire. Everyone needed to know. They needed to confirm their suspicions about us, about the tall one’s rage and his eyes. Were they really blood red?
I couldn’t listen to the theories about Drew. They made me so furious, I saw red and broke the dish I was scrubbing.
The only thing I heard was one woman’s whisper.
She said, “The Omega has a strange smell.”
Business was booming at the Inn.
Ryan came stumbling back into the kitchen, out of breath and flushing. He quickly traded his dirty plates for full orders. His red hair was usually styled neater, but he obviously had been running his fingers through it today. There were more stains than usual on his apron.
“There’s so many people,” he said under his breath, over the popping bacon and the gurgle of the coffee maker. “I can’t believe it.” His skinny arms trembled when he picked up the tray of food.
I couldn’t take it anymore.
From my sink station, I was able to kick Dominic’s leg. Dominic was still leading the war against sleeves with his white t-shirt sleeves rolled up to his shoulders. He was icing the trays of warm cinnamon buns. He ignored me, so I kicked him again. Dominic snapped a dangerous look at me, but without words I motioned to Ryan.
Dominic’s brow quirked.
I kicked him one more time to get him to move and mouthed, ”Help him.”
The realization landed and we had lift off. Dominic quickly wiped his hand and caught up to Ryan before he walked through the doors. He snatched the tray from Ryan’s hands, resting his free hand on Ryan’s lower back. “Which table?”
“Huh?” Ryan blinked wildly up at him. “Wait- What?”
“I’ve got this. You take a break,” he stated without being able to look at Ryan. His tan skin flushed, and it was the closest to adorable as Dominic Flores could possibly come.
“Dom,” Ryan said, the tips of his ears reddening. “You don’t have to-”
Dominic quickly cut him off. The longer Ryan looked at him and spoke, the more flustered the cool guy Dominic seemed to become. I would be feasting upon this moment for days. “Take five, drink some water and then, you can get back to it.” Dominic walked Ryan to the nearest chair. Ryan was too in shock by this gentleness to argue. “Just relax, Red. I got this,” Dominic smirked at him and winked.
“T-table three!” Ryan squeaked.
With a knowing look, Liam slid him over a tall glass of water and Ryan chugged it in one go, still out of breath and shocked. He dropped his head on the counter, covering his blushing face. He shook his head against the battle waging war inside his head.
“You okay, Ryan?” Liam asked.
“Why is he so confusing?” Ryan returned with another question. “He shouldn’t be allowed to be so...” His face scrunched as he thought of the word: ”Nice, when he’s really such a jerk, right? I mean, Dominic is a jerk.” He looked at the room for answers. “Right?”
Liam did a little shrug and I decided to raise my hands in no comment. Dominic did a lot of the running around for Ryan until he caught his breath. Ryan meekly thanked him again, his stare lingering. He grabbed the next order and hurried out the door. Dominic stood in the middle of the kitchen and watched him go. Whenever the other person wasn’t looking, they’d sneak a glance. It was maddening.
Grace appeared. She only had to watch them for a few minutes to figure it out. Grimacing, she nudged me, “What’s with them?”
“Dom is learning. I’m a great influence,” I boasted, which earned me a classic Grace eye roll. She quickly kissed Liam’s cheek, not to bother his cooking, but that didn’t seem to be enough. Liam’s face spread in a huge grin as he yanked Grace back for a much longer kiss. She chuckled and surrendered. My chest clenched, thinking about Ezra and his mate, Angelica. I pictured them back home. I pictured Ezra being so consumed in work that Angelica had to snatch a document and run around the house, so he’d chase her, so he’d catch her and never let go.
“Jess,” Grace said, snatching me from my daydream before I drowned. “We’re going into town. I’ve got a nifty little plan.”
“Dangerous,” I frowned. “Is it as bad as the last one?”
“I’m going to pretend I didn’t here that. We’ll leave after the breakfast rush,” she instructed and went back upstairs to fetch the girls. Mia was feeling better after a few days and did her usual waitressing duties. The morning rush fizzled nicely into the late afternoon. Drew slept in. I didn’t say anything, but I knew he was still having nightmares. Not every night, but on nights when he tossed and turned and he shivered, I had trouble sleeping too.
“I’ll be right back,” I told Drew as I wrapped myself in a scarf. He nodded, searching the closet for one of Liam’s beanies. “But if you want to come, you should come.” I said like I didn’t get nervous leaving him here without me. He’d be safe with Liam but being apart was enough to strangle the air out of my lungs. It felt like walking on a field of land mines. Nothing might happen, but something still could.
“We could go to the bookstore,” I even offered. It was an obvious bribe.
Drew froze. He seemed tempted, but after some struggling, he shook his head. “No, um I just want to stay here. I’ve already got a few books here to read. I’m fine.”
He met my eyes and I took the black beanie he uncovered. There wasn’t a nice way I could imagine calling him a liar. It was because of the stares from all the people. He was back to wearing his button ups to the very top button and the clean gauze covering the bites still peaked out of the top. It wasn’t fair, this world.
I leaned down and kissed him, briefly with a gentle touch. I whispered, “I’ll be home soon.” He nodded and strung his arms around me. He squeezed, lingering in my arms. I hugged him back, running my hand through the soft strands of hair on the back of his head. He smelled a little like me, a little of books and coffee and... a little like Jacob too. I kissed him square on the head and picked my head up to shout through the house, “Grace! Are we going or what?!”
“I’m coming! Get off my back!” She raged back.
Liam sighed from kitchen.
Ryan emerged with his backpack slung over his shoulder. He spoke at the ground, but it seemed to be directed at Dominic following close behind. “Um, I’ve got class until like 6:45.” He shrugged and readjusted his bag. “I’ll probably eat some ramen noodles. Maybe I’ll even fry an egg to make it fancy.”
“So, you’re headed to school now?” Dominic asked.
“Uh, yeah,” Ryan turned around. “I have to grab my bike, but yeah.”
“I’m going that way. I’ll uh-” Dominic grabbed Ryan’s bag before it could fall off his shoulder again. He strapped it to his own back, shoulders rolled back and chin high. “I’ll drive you.”
Ryan blushed. In theory, this was when Ryan usually said no. He would usually insist that he’d never in a million years get into a vehicle with Dominic, but this time, he hesitated. He bit his bottom lip, before he said, “Okay, but don’t drive us to some make-out point or something.”
Dominic grinned. “Red, I can just as easily kiss you anytime anywhere, even in your school parking lot. I could make-out with you right here. The place doesn’t matter.”
“Not on your life,” Ryan grumbled, but the corners of his mouth twitched. He turned and he realized Drew and I were there to watch all that go down and his blush brightened like police sirens in the dead of night. “Excuse me,” he squeaked and hurried past us. When he walked through the door, he blasted us with the winter chill like a swift slap in the face.
“Alright.” I gave Dominic a thumbs up. “Now don’t fuck it up.”
Dominic gave me the middle finger and closed the door behind him. Soon, Grace finally joined me downstairs in a puffy jacket and knee-high boots. She wore a fuzzy white headband that forced her curls in bunches by her cheeks.
We walked to town. Now that I could get a better look at it, the town of Dearest was compiled of curvy roads that had the habit of becoming so small no car could fit through. It was a place to walk, to explore and find a niche little store here with a green house in the backroom or an actual meat market there. It was all blanketed in snow. Icicles clung to the edges of the roofs. If this was the off season, it must be the most magical place in the world then.
Everyone knew Grace and she didn’t bat an eye when she introduced me as “Jess. He’s staying with me.” At one point, her brow narrowed, and she snapped her head at me. “Oh, fuck. What’s your last name?”
The man from the hardware store laughed as if that was silly question as if I wasn’t supposed to have one. I glared at him and bellowed. “It’s Castellano. We’re known for our charming smiles and knocking an asshole’s teeth out.” I dotted my I’s with a shit eating grin. Grace covered her mouth in time to hide her snort. She pulled me away before things could escalate and cause anyone to call Cameron.
“Okay, listen,” Grace said, rubbing her hands together. She finally unleashed her master plan. “I’m going to introduce you to a friend of mine. Her name’s Athena and she owns the local garage with Orla, that’s her mate. They’re a couple of Gammas, super nice. If you play your cards right, we can get you a job there.”
She walked a few steps ahead before she noticed. She blinked. “What? What’s wrong?”
“There’s no way she’d hire me.”
I rolled my eyes and shoved my hands in my pockets. “Stop playing dumb,” I said, my words much harder than I intended. The venom tasted sour and burnt, but I couldn’t stop. “Grace. Stop pretending I’m some sort of family friend or something. Act like what I am. I’m a Rogue, Grace. No one’s going to want to hire me.”
Grace walked right up to me. She barely reached my shoulders, but she had the glare of a giant. She grabbed me by the scarf and yanked me down to her eye level. “You listen here, Jess Castellano, what makes you think I’m gonna take no for an answer? You’re forgetting who you’re talking to.” She let me go and laid her hands on her hips. “But it’s not going to be up to me. You wanted to work with cars, right?”
I chewed the inside of my cheek. I needed to be careful with what Grace said. She had the power to really get my hopes up. Still, I admitted, “Yeah.”
“Well, then act like you want it. Act like you want more than the bare minimum or that’s all you’re ever gonna get, Jess Castellano.”
I sighed and walked past her to hide the tears blurring my vision. “I shouldn’t have told you my last name. You nag just like my mom.”
“You’re testing me today,” she bellowed, pointing a warning finger at me.
She hurried back to my side, shoving me a little and I made a big show of stumbling as I laughed. We walked closer to the edge of Dearest, where there was plenty of room for cars to park. It was a relic created of sturdy brick with faded yellow paint spelling out the name ”Athena’s Garage“. It looked more like a factory with huge checkered windows and high ceilings. Parked at the very front were a few cars with price tags on the windows.
Something beautiful stopped me in my tracks.
There was a vintage Harley Davidson from the fifties, if I had to guess. It was made to take people on a trip cross country. It was meant to pick up someone’s sweetheart and take them to the closest mom and pop shop, but not make it through the doors. I touched the leather and a spark of joy, something so fleeting and so difficult to reach danced up my arm. I could only imagine what Jacob did with my hog back home...
“It costs ten bucks a minute to touch,” A woman declared from the one of the open garages. It was a short, but burly woman with dark curly hair, but one stripe of stark white hair by her face. She wore a ruined pair of overalls and a baseball T-shirt in support of the local little league. We met eyes and she hesitated, focusing on my red irises. Her whole body tensed as a grimace wrinkled her face.
With her hands raised, she said, “I don’t want any trouble, man. Just keep walking and I won’t have to call the Alpha.” My hand curled away from the motorcycle, a twinge of disappointment curling inside my chest. This was life I wanted, but I couldn’t have it.
“Hey Athena! He’s with me!” Grace piped up. She patted my back and strolled right to the door. She ripped off the help wanted sign and tossed it to me. I caught it against my chest, shooting her a suspicious glare. “Jess, this is Athena, an old friend of mine.”
“I’m everyone’s old friend,” Athena mirrored my suspicious look. “What do you want Grace? What are you up to?”
“Have you had lunch yet? I’ll buy you whatever you want at the Lunchbox.”
After a lull, Athena leaned back into the garage and shouted. “I’m taking my lunch! I kind of want to see where this goes!” She joined us back to the town square. Grace walked in-between Athena and I as she went on and on about home stuff. She asked Athena some questions about her wife and their son, but Athena side-eyed me and gave non-answers.
My skin crawled. She didn’t want me to know this stuff. She spoke over Grace, when she mentioned Athena’s house. She didn’t want me to know where she lived.
I thought about Drew, about giving people a chance. It’s what he wanted for me. Closing my eyes, I buried my nervousness into the corner and spoke up. I cut through the small talk and asked Athena, “Hey, was that a Sportster?”
Grace’s eyes sparkled.
Athena nodded. “Yeah... you ride?”
“Used to,” I shrugged. “Did a little road trip after I graduated high school by the skin of my teeth. I left before I could walk. That whole cap and gown thing made me a little nauseous.”
Athena’s laugh betrayed her. She said, practically boasting, “I missed mine. Drunker than a skunk the night before. They called my name and I was puking my guts out in the parking lot.”
“Jess used to work at a garage,” Grace added, nudging me with her elbow. She wouldn’t know how to be subtle even if a shadow whispered the directions into her ear. I withheld an eye roll, but ended up meeting Athena’s look of petulance. She shook her head, probably used to years of Grace’s meddling.
But it wasn’t an outright “no”.
A crashing noise brought us out of the moment and we only stopped a few seconds. I eyed Grace and she nodded, letting me run ahead. I was faster than them and made it around the corner first to watch a lamp fall from the second story of an apartment building, hurtling at none other than Cameron Hawthorne’s blonde head.
Cameron danced out of the way, but the wreckage went far and wide. A sharp curse flew out of Cameron’s mouth as he snapped his head up at the second-floor balcony. His brow narrowed, he pointed at the broken proclaim and glass. “That could have hit me!” Cameron declared, flabbergasted. “That almost hit me!”
A man snapped, leaning over the snow-covered railing, “I missed!”
“That’s Mark,” Grace pointed at the balcony for me.
I stifled a laugh behind me hand. It was mean to laugh, but it was incredible to watch the Alpha of a pack getting publicly roasted by his mate. Mark Kimura, I remembered. Mark was an Asian man, tall and slender, almost boney in his frame with a pronounced jaw and high cheek bones. He had short black hair, shorter in the back with messy bangs in the front. Everything about him reminded me of long flourishing calligraphy with his elongated neck, limbs and his slender fingers.
Outside, he only wore a loose gray T-shirt and sweat pants, but he didn’t seem to care. His rage warmed him nicely as he went back inside to bring out a small TV. It was like Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene but from a Jerry Springer episode. The apartment was cobbled together with stone and brick, covered in ivy and Christmas lights.
“Quit before it gets ugly, Cameron!” Grace advised.
If Cameron heard her, he ignored her. His first mistake. Mark came back outside with a small flat screen TV. Cameron’s face went pale. Mark shouted, “Do you think I’m an idiot?! Did you think I wouldn’t notice?!” He tipped the TV over the side, despite Cameron’s pleas. The TV cartwheeled down and hit the ground with my favorite smash yet. God, I wanted popcorn for this. Mark shouted, “You can’t just move in without asking me! You prick!”
“Hey! Hey!” Cameron shouted back, but at the door Mark disappeared through again.
I leaned towards the women and suggested, “Five bucks he throws a whole dresser.”
“You don’t have five dollars to bet,” Grace snickered, but didn’t disagree. People were peeking out of their windows, standing at their doors. Half a café walked outside to enjoy the action. It was incredible not being the center of attention for once.
Cameron pleaded his case at the empty balcony. “I signed that lease too, you know!”
Mark stormed back outside with multiple boxes, absolutely infuriated. He lifted one and took shoes out, chucking one after another at Cameron’s head. “Funny enough!” Mark roared and the town watched Cameron dodge only half the shoes. “I had to resign the lease when you were gone! Without you!”
“Shit, fuck,” Cameron yelped as he jumped the wrong way and a shoe nailed him in the middle of his back. He groaned, “Yeah, forgot about that. Damn.”
“He’s gonna kill you Cameron, give it up!” Athena called out this time.
A man from the café agreed, shouting, “You’re not gonna win!”
“Leave me alone!” Cameron waved them all away, still solely focused on Mark two stories up. His eyes widened when Mark lifted the next box over his head, dumping Cameron’s clothes at the wet muddy ground. Shirts, pants, socks and even boxers fluttered down, so many that Cameron couldn’t catch or hold entirely in his arms. “Stop! Stop! Please, Mark! Those are my good pants! Those are my good pants! You know I only have two!”
“Yeah!” Mark snapped, raising two fingers. “Two good pairs of pants and two brain cells!” I snorted, itching to own a cell phone again. I wanted to call Drew immediately and give him the play-by-play. I had never in my life witnessed two mates fight like this.
“Are they always like this?” I asked Grace.
“Kind of,” She admitted. “They’re accustomed to bickering and fighting, even in high school before they knew they were mates. They’ve been together a long time, so they tended to make-up easily, but...” Grace shook her head. “When Cameron left, Mark changed. I don’t know how Cameron is going to win him back, but it’s going to take a lot this time.”
Cameron raised his hands in surrender, his clothes hanging off his arms and shoulders. He held a handful of socks in one hand. A pair of briefs was laid over his head. “Come on, Mark.” He sighed, growing more exhausted by the second. “I get it. I know I’m an idiot. Please let me come back home. I’m your mate and I’m asking this time!”
“When I mated with you,” Mark gritted his teeth, still seething. “I don’t remember signing up to be mated with an asshole!” He stormed back into the apartment, but this time, he slammed the door shut. A few people in the crowd clapped. Our little trio stepped forward, but I remained a little farther back.
Cameron dropped to his hind legs, holding his miserable face. He shook his head. “Where am I going to live now?” He moaned and ruffled his hair, throwing the briefs to the side.
“You can stay with Liam and me,” Grace suggested. Cameron perked up as she shrugged. “It’s the off season. I’ll rent you a room on the cheap.” Cameron’s stormy blue eyes pinned on me and somehow, his frown deepened. It added a lifetime of stress on his face.
“Pass,” he said.
“Fine,” Grace kicked his shoe. “Sleep on a bench.”
“Don’t you have like an Alpha house or something?” I asked, figuring every pack had one. It was always a place for the Alpha to conduct business and host guests. Ezra’s house might as well have had a revolving door. The question made Cameron’s shoulders tense.
He grabbed the clothes nearest to him, pitifully. He admitted, “It’s my parent’s house and I know they’re not...” He couldn’t say it. He sighed. “All their stuff is there, and I can’t clean it out. I can’t donate that stuff, but I can’t...”
“Can’t look at it either,” I finished for him.
He didn’t say anything else. He didn’t have to say it. That house must be a time-capsule of his life before he left, before he had to be the Alpha too soon, before when he had a living parent. We helped him gather his stuff and we led him towards the Dearest Inn anyways. Eventually, Cameron stopped staring at us and finally just asked, “What are you guys doing anyways?”
“I think I’m interviewing Jess for a job,” Athena stated, giving Grace a little side-eyed, while Grace made herself look as innocent and surprised as possible.
“I’ll work hard,” I spoke up. “I do really good work and I love the job.”
“He’s been working at the Inn since he got here,” Grace added. “He even worked on our car. I promise you, he’s a good guy.”
“I’m sure that’s true,” Athena said. Exasperated, she sighed. “I’m sure you need this job too, probably more than most but...” She said and I knew it was coming. “I can’t hire a Rogue. No one will come to the shop if they know you’re there. My guys won’t like it either. I’m sorry Jess. It’s a business.”
A cold lump swelled in the middle of my throat. I couldn’t swallow it, but it slowly melted and leaked an icy chill down my chest. It was painful, like dipping my entire body in an ice bath, but I nodded. I said, “I understand.”
“That’s such bullshit!” Grace shouted. We stopped in the middle of path. Grace insisted, “What do you think he’s going to do? Fuck, Athena! He plays with my daughter all day! He’s the most gentle man I’ve ever seen with his mate! He works hard! Harder than half your guys ever would! Just give him a fucking chance-”
“I had a guy that was killed by a Rogue, you remember that, don’t you Grace? Rodney was ripped to pieces. They had to have a closed casket. If I can’t erase that pain, do you really think Jess could? He’s not exactly a warm personality.”
“You better pray to the moon goddess that if something bad ever happens to you, people will be a little more compassionate,” Grace stated. She shoved Cameron’s clothes into my arms and nabbed the rest of Athena’s load. “We got this covered and I’ll have to give you a rain check on the lunch. Maybe Liam will bring you something, but if I have to look at you one more second, I’m gonna blow. Let’s go boys,” she huffed and whipped around, storming down the path on her own.
Athena sighed again. She gave me a half-hearted smile and left. It was just Cameron and I for a moment, watching them both go. I said, “Do you want your stuff? I’ll tell Grace you had other plans.”
Cameron stared at me again. He spent a lot of time studying me. He was looking for a switch that just wasn’t there. He shrugged and chose to follow Grace. “My other plan would really be to sleep on a bench, besides where else am I gonna get free pancakes as good as Liam’s?” And like that, I followed the Alpha back to the Dearest Inn as a roommate.